Male dominance in Bourne’s Swan Lake is defining feature

Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. In 1995 Bourne made the radical move to replace the female chorus with male dancers in his adaptation of the classic ballet. Pic: Bill Cooper

Matthew Bourne re-imagines the classic ballet Swan Lake, says Tina Darb O’Sullivan.

MATTHEW Bourne’s theatre production company, New Adventures, specialises in adapting classic shows, giving them a modern, sometimes mischievous twist.

His treatment of Swan Lake is a prime example. In 1995 Bourne made a bold and radical move to replace the female chorus of swans with male dancers in his adaptation of the well-loved ballet. The resulting production has broken records on London’s West End and on Broadway.

One of the leading male dancers is Chris Trenfield, who originally hoped to work in musical theatre.

“I started ballet when I was 16, which is quite late,” he says, “but for boys it’s quite usual. When I got to college they put me in more ballet classes because they saw potential there. They said I probably could have gone to a ballet school when I was younger but it was never something I wanted to do. I actually went into West Side Story as my first job and then auditioned for this company.”

Four years ago Trenfield played a swan just after joining the company and he has relished coming back to the role as a more experienced dancer. “I feel that I’ve developed, I feel so much more secure and stronger. Back then I thought I was okay but now I feel much more like a dancer performing the role rather than a musical theatre student who can dance.”

Bourne’s adaptation appeals to Trentfield as it teeters on musical theatre, making it far more accessible to audiences who are not regular visitors to the ballet. “It’s not a traditional ballet,” he says. “In all of Matthew’s work he takes his own twist on things. It’s not what you’d expect from a dance show. It’s more theatrical, there’s a lot more emphasis on the storyline.”

The male dominance in Bourne’s adaptation of Swan Lake is its most defining feature. The chorus line are kitted out in feathered shorts, each stunning costume worth £1,000 a piece. The delicate, white pieces fail to diminish the menacing energy of the bare-chested, bare-footed men treading the boards. Trenfield acknowledges this as one of the factors contributing to the show’s continued success.

“It was so ground breaking at the time and so novel to have the swans as male. It gives it a different look because you think of the swans as being pretty, beautiful females but actually they’re very muscular animals.

“They’re very aggressive at times, and territorial. It gives a different edge for the audience to look at.”

The other radical decision Bourne made was to cast both figures in the central love story as male. Bourne himself dismisses the term ‘homoerotic’, insisting that the production is highly erotic, regardless of the gender of the protagonists.

Trentfield agrees, urging audiences to look for the deeper message.

“The whole gay love between the two is not so much on the forefront anymore, it’s more the prince’s desire to be free and be who he wants to be. That freedom is what he sees in the swan rather than somebody he falls in love with, it’s more his character and his confidence and his bravado that he longs for.”

While much is made of the male performers in Bourne’s Swan Lake, a third of the cast are actually female. Anjali Mehra plays the power-crazed prince’s mother as well as the prince’s girlfriend. Each lead role has three or four dancers assigned as the dancing is so demanding. The in-house physiotherapist watches each show and makes substitutions mid-show to minimise the possibility of injuries.

The girlfriend character brings comic relief to the script. A modern-day gal, she humanises the elitist setting of the royal palace. While originally written as a dark character, and key to the destruction of the prince, she is now a more pure-hearted figure who ultimately will do anything for her man.

“She drives the plot along,” says Mehra, “and really highlights the prince being an outsider in his own environment. He’s not comfortable there and suddenly he sees this other person who doesn’t conform to anything and he likes her straight away. I think that allows us to see much more about his personality.”

This leaves the ‘dark streak’ for the queen, a formidable character that older dancers are clamouring to play. Mehra doesn’t miss the tutu and traditional ballet garb, as Lez Brotherston’s costumes are beautifully conceived and as successful today as when they were first launched in 1995.

These days, Mehra mostly works as a choreographer and is delighted to work on a Bourne production.

The male swans were an audacious innovation back in 1995, but the shift in balance hasn’t upset the female dancers, says Mehra.

“It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s like all the girls have a moment in the spotlight... So it’s good for both male and female dancers, and we like having lots of men around.”

* Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre February 25 — March 1.


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